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Scott G Winterton, KSL

17 arrested as protesters fight homeless removal in Washington Square

By Graham Dudley and Jen Riess, KSL.com | Updated - Jan 5th, 2020 @ 10:42pm | Posted - Jan 5th, 2020 @ 9:38am


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SALT LAKE CITY — Seventeen people were arrested overnight after police moved to clear campers from Washington Square in downtown Salt Lake City.

Protestors who identify themselves as the "Take Shelter Coalition" began the encampment on Friday after submitting a list of demands to the city to address the growing number of homeless people in Salt Lake.

"We were told that some unsheltered people along 500 South were woken up very early (Friday) morning and were told to move to Washington Square," Salt Lake police media director Christina Judd said. "After two days, the protesters were still unwilling to meet with the administration, and it was determined that we needed to enforce park curfew."

The Salt Lake City Police Department tweeted just before 11 p.m. Saturday that it was on the scene “in an attempt to enforce the park curfew.” Police closed off State Street and 500 South around the park for several hours.

Over 100 officers and civilian staff with Salt Lake police removed an estimated 100 protestors from an "occupy style protest," according to Salt Lake Police Chief Mike Brown.

Brown said protesters were notified throughout the day about the curfew enforcement and given opportunities to speak with himself, Mayor Jackie Biskupski and Mayor-Elect Erin Mendenhall.

A statement from the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Office issued Friday said officials attempted to reach out to those organizing the encampment, but said there was no response.

“A concerted effort has been made to abate these encampments on an ongoing basis throughout the city,” Biskupski and Mendenhall said in a joint statement. “The city works in close partnership with the Salt Lake County Health Department to evaluate each encampment on an individual basis and remedy those situations that pose the greatest health and safety risks.”

"We have seen this same group of protestors involved in the inland port and other political polarizing issues," Brown said. "This group has chosen to use tactics that have historically not been positive and constructive."

Brown said one of his greatest concerns is the protests delayed the response to an overdose at the encampment because EMS personnel had to take extra precautions to ensure their own safety.

Salt Lake police tweeted that while they respect “the rights of those who want to protest in a safe, peaceful manner,” some protesters “continue to participate in causes that put them in direct confrontation with police in hopes of instigating an encounter that fits their narrative.

“This puts officers in dangerous situations as well,” they wrote.

In video taken from the scene, police holding shields and wearing riot gear can be seen clashing with protesters and activists who came to support the homeless population in the park.

Mike Sanchez, an activist at the scene, said he and others have been providing food and clothing to the homeless at the park.

“We’re just trying to do our part right here to make their environment a little bit better for these unsheltered folks with nowhere to go,” Sanchez said. “Our ultimate goal is to get some housing for them.”

The protesters claim there are no beds available at the new homeless resource centers around the city.

"At the time we began this operation there were, and we confirmed this, 74 beds available in the shelters," Brown said. "That is what is truly happening. That is a narrative these individuals do not want you to hear."

But Preston Cochrane, executive director of Shelter the Homeless, said there were 18 beds open between the three shelters Saturday night. He added that during the last week of December there were an average of 20 beds open each night. Approximately 65-70 beds are available by 8 p.m., but they fill up by 10 p.m.

“We’ve been set up here for a couple days,” one protester said. “It’s been peaceful. We’ve been cleaning up the garbage, we’ve been taking care of everything. There hasn’t been any crime. There’s just no need for a police presence like this.”

Police tweeted they had secured the area just after 2 a.m. Sunday. They wrote they had "shown great restraint" in dealing with the protesters.

“It’s a lot of what they’ve been saying in the past,” said Finn Epperson-Valum, one of the Take Shelter Coalition members. “They applaud themselves for what they have done, but what they have done isn’t enough.”

"We have reduced by 38% the number of citations issued for camping this year over last year and even more drastically compared to 2017," Brown said.

Police said 17 people were arrested on investigation of trespassing, interfering with arresting officers, disorderly conduct, failure to disperse and resisting arrests. Four of those arrested were booked into jail and 13 were given citations and released, according to Brown.

Two other people arrested earlier were charged with outstanding warrants.

"Public Services, in two days, estimated they removed six to seven tons of trash and over 825 pounds of evidence was collected and removed," Brown said.

“No cold weather items have been taken from those that are experiencing homelessness,” police tweeted.

Anyone who needs to coordinate retrieval of their items can look for them in storage containers provided by the city in a downtown location or can call 801-799-3000

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Contributing: Adam Sotelo, KSL TV

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Graham Dudley
Jen Riess

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